A film review by Craig J. Koban July 31, 2015


2015, R, 123 mins.


Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope  /  Rachel McAdams as Maureen Hope  /  Forest Whitaker as Titus 'Tick' Wills  /  Oona Laurence as Leila Hope  /  Naomie Harris as Angela Rivera  /  50 Cent as Jordan Mains 

Directed by Antoine Fuqua  /  Written by Kurt Sutter

I've frequently lamented about how so many modern Hollywood films chew up and spit out the same tired and stale genre conventions on an endless basis.  

Antoine Fuqua’s SOUTHPAW is a pugilist drama that definitely follows the boxing drama playbook through and through and does very little in the form of creative innovation with storytelling formulas.  It’s about a punch-drunk fighter that has hit rock bottom hard just when he has reached the upper echelon of success in his sport, leaving him to pick up the fragile pieces of his tragic circumstances to rise above all odds and score inevitable personal victories in and outside of the ring.  Anyone with a reasonable head on their shoulders that has seen any of the ROCKY films can plot out precisely where SOUTHPAW is heading as it careers towards its “big final match” conclusion. 

Here’s the thing, though, that separates Fuqua’s film well apart from the pack: The inherent strength of SOUTHPAW lies with how it rises above its overused formulas and creates a story that’s emotionally resonate and dramatically raw and authentic.  Yes, SOUTHPAW is relentlessly predictable through and through, but Fuqua and screenwriter Kurt Sutter understand that sometimes solid films don’t need to reinvent the genre as long as they're populated with credibly drawn characters with fully committed performances behind them that have weight and feel real throughout.  Ultimately, SOUTHPAW becomes less about the sport of boxing and more about the humanity of its characters and the relationships they desperately try to maintain when life has beset them with heartbreaking setbacks.  The film, in a way, is proof positive that you can still make an emotionally invigorating and charged film set within fairly overused genre machinations.  



Compellingly, SOUTHPAW is kind of the reverse ROCKY in the sense that, unlike the iconic fighter played by Sylvester Stallone, its boxer begins the film at the top of his vocation and then falls from grace and has to claw his way back up to the top.  Like Balboa, though, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) was born an underdog.  Living an early life in the perils of the foster care system, Billy started with relatively nothing and then cultivated himself into a boxing legend.  At the beginning of the film he’s the undisputed world lightweight boxing champion that – at least as far as an early match is concerned – seems to use his face as a punching bag for defence before he lays the final victorious beatdown on his startled opponent.  Billy may be a messy fighter without much grace in the squared circle, but he gets the job done, much to the chagrin of his trainers, his promoter Jordan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). 

Regrettably, the hellish damage that’s inflicted on Billy in the ring is starting to catch up with him, leaving Maureen pleading with her husband to retire so that he can help raise their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) before he becomes a mental vegetable.  Just when Billy begrudgingly agrees to call it a career, the allure of competition gets the better of him in the form of a new challenger in Miguel (Miguel Gomez) that likes to confront Billy and shoot off his mouth as to his relative worth as a champion in the process.  During one fateful charity event Miguel’s narcissistic showboating gets under Billy’s skin, leading to a violent altercation that ends in personal tragedy, leaving Billy a widowed and broken down father.  Unable to curtail his grief, Billy agrees to Jordan’s request to defend his title in more bouts for a highly lucrative contract, but the psychological damaged fighter disgracefully loses.  In the aftermath of the fight – and to add insult to injury – Billy loses his fortune due to financial mismanagement and also loses Lelia to court ordered foster care.  Left with virtually nothing in life, Billy turns to a street wise trainer Titus (Forrest Whitaker), someone that has skills in training volatile young men to be better men in their sport and on the streets and, in turn, helps Billy mend his personal life and professional career. 

Gee…you’ll never guess what happens next! 

Obvious sarcasm aside, what makes SOUTHPAW such a thoroughly immersive drama is the power of its actors, championed by yet another superlative turn by the insanely underrated Jake Gyllenhaal, whose demonstrated time and time again in recent films like NIGHTCRAWLER, ENEMY and PRISONERS (and many other past ones) why he just may be the most empowered actor of his generation.  Remarkably, Gyllenhaal built up his emaciated NIGHTCRAWLER frame to the physically sculpted physique of a plausible boxing champion; there is never a moment in the film when you doubt that the actor is a boxer.  Beyond bringing immediate credibility as a physical brute force in the film, Gyllenhaal pitch perfectly captures all of the subtle nuances of Billy, from his outward verbal aggression, to his inability to articulate feelings, to his struggles with identifying and dealing with his inner demons that have cost him so much.  The greatness of his performance lies with relaying how men like Billy are savage and blunt force instruments of wanton destruction in the ring, but in the real world they struggle with their own insecurities and lack confidence in maintaining meaningful relationships.  Gyllenhaal’s lack of a Oscar nomination for NIGHTCRAWLER was criminal, so let’s hope the Academy’s attention span remembers his tour de force work here; he has rarely been this headstrong, confident, and ferociously dedicated in a role. 

He’s flanked by bravura supporting performances as well that help round off SOUTHPAW’s thespian might.  McAdams brings a feisty streetwise and authoritative toughness to what could have been a throwaway beleaguered wife role.  Young Oona Laurence gives one of the finer and more natural child performances of living memory as Billy’s daughter, making even the most melodramatic of moments between her and Gyllenhaal ring true.  Whitaker also scores high points for his take on the obligatory trainer, a stock part that’s thanklessly hard to make original and fresh considering the pantheon of genre films that have come before SOUTHPAW.  Whitaker brings a soft-spoken solemnity to Titus and plays him as a mentor figure that may not have all of the answers to life’s problems, mostly because he’s damaged goods himself.  The film certainly contains requisite training montages between Titus and Billy, but Gyllenhaal and Whitaker make such a dynamic tandem on screen together that you’re willing to forgive overtly familiar beats like that. 

On a negative, I wished that Fuqua had a less busy and ostentatious shooting style in the film; sometimes, his swirling and swooshing camera has a habit of overwhelming his actors (granted, his aesthetic lends itself resoundingly well to the film’s positively mesmerizing boxing sequences, which make you literally feel every blow that’s being thrown).  SOUTHPAW’s script gets a bit lazy in regards to some questionable handling of sub-plots (the shooting at the beginning of the film – and the investigation that ensues afterwards – is sort of discarded early on and forgotten about, not to mention that Billy seems to lose his financial empire too quickly to be believed).  Yet, SOUTHPAW overcomes its storytelling obviousness, recycled narrative drive and bouts with scripting logic with truly sincere and absorbing performances that fully enhances the redemption arc of the film.  The film has clichéd characters inhabiting a clichéd story that builds towards a clichéd ending, but the tale of this boxing hero’s journey is nevertheless a surprisingly enthralling one because of the tangible flesh-and-blood personalities that emerge in it.  SOUTHPAW doesn't feel obliged to reinvent the genre, mostly because it’s more concerned with harnessing the genre for just the right dramatic effect.

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